How to Take Better Winter Photos
Winter is a beautiful time - cold, still, and, in the right areas, blanketed in pure white snow. Frozen wonderland landscapes look magical, and portraits in the snow are gorgeous.
But it can be difficult to get the photos to turn out right.
- Snow can appear blue-ish or yellow when the white balance is not correct.
- Details can be lost in shadows or bright glare when the exposure isn't what you wanted.
- Low light levels can result in image blur if your camera is not completely still.
In addition to the difficulties of shooting, you need to be able to work your camera with frozen (or gloved) fingers, and deal with the shorter battery life in the cold.
Follow these tips to snap some better winter photos!
Warm, thick coats, hats, scarves, warm boots, woolen socks and gloves - if you are shooting in cold temperatures or snow, you'll need these items!
Gloves - For touchscreen cameras, I recommend getting a touch pen, or gloves with pads that allow you to use touch screens. Don't risk frostbite and use fingerless gloves, unless the weather is warm enough!
Jacket - One with pockets on the inside is a good idea for storing batteries (my friends have reported batteries refusing to work in cold temperatures, unless stored against their bodies!)
Boots - Non-slip soles are good when walking around on icy ground - you don't want to fall and break your camera!
Or stay inside! Shoot through a window from a warm place - your living room or inside a heated car. A polarizing filter will help reduce reflections from the window glass.
Adjust the white balance for snow
Snow is reflective and can cause your camera to set the white balance wrongly. Blue or grey snow, especially in the shadows, is a common problem.
Many cameras allow you to adjust the white balance. Take a few shots, play with the white balance settings, and choose the one which is most 'white'.
Tip: Setting the white balance to 'cloudy' will make any colors in the picture warmer, making them pop out from the snow-covered scene. It will also reduce the blue-ness of the snow.
Alternatively you can adjust the photo's white balance in your photo editing software (Photoshop, Gimp, iPhoto, etc.), although this can introduce odd colors in other parts of the photo.
Use the right exposure in the snow
Auto exposure settings work well, in most cameras, for most of the year. However, the brightness of the snow can cause problems, and over- or under-expose your subject.
If you are taking a photo of a person, or a subject with detail and snow in the background, the camera will most likely set the exposure according to the light from the snow (and not from your subject). You will need to over-expose, or use a flash to bring out the darker details of your subject.
Bonus: Adjusting the exposure to over-expose a little (but not too much), will also 'whiten' the snow.
DigitalCamera.com has a fantastic winter photography cheat sheet to help you select the perfect exposure for your scene.
Look for color in the snow
A white background can make colors jump out of a cold and grey photo.
Look for subjects with bold, bright colors to contrast with the snow and focus on them.
DSLRs in winter
DSLRs allow you to play with the camera settings to achieve much more artistic effects.
- slow shutter speed, a strong torch, a good flashlight, a tripod and a lens hood, and you can get some gorgeous falling snow shots.
- snow makes a great background for light painting with a laser, torch or firestick.
Tip: A wide angle DSLR lens is a must for snowy landscape photography!
DSLR accessories for winter
- A polarizing filter will help bring out colors in the cooler light, and reduce the glare and reflection from snow and ice.
- A graduated ND (neutral density) filter will allow more detail at lower shutter speeds, darken an overexposed sky, and lets you to capture movement in water. It can also help with making the snow appear 'whiter'.
- A lens hood will protect your lens from falling snow and rain.
Snow photography and special effects (dSLR)
Camera gear for winter photography
- A spare battery (or more) is a must.
- Good quality camera cards perform better in winter than cheaper brands - you don't want to lose your work!
- Some kind of rain and snow protection is a good idea if your camera body is not sealed against water.
- A tripod will help you take less blurry photos, especially if you shake in cold weather like I do! A monopod can double as a walking stick - stability on icy/snowy ground.
- Lens brush to brush away any snow that lands on the lens - don't blow on the lens, it will melt the snow!
Tip: Don't immediately pack your camera away when you come inside from the snow. Condensation can form inside the camera, and it will need some time to dry out.
You can use a ziplock bag to seal your camera when outside, so it can slowly warm up inside without forming condensation.
Silica gel packets can also help prevent and remove condensation.
Winter photo subjects
Early morning shots are great for capturing fog, mist and pristine snow landscapes without any footprints.
Frost covered leaves and grass stalks make great macro subjects. Snow covered plants and trees, devoid of leaves and color can also make interesting subjects.
Sunrises are often more picturesque than sunsets in winter.
Just after sunrise or just before sunset, the shadows are long, providing interesting patterns on the white ground.
Winter light is cold, soft and flattering, with the snow providing an excellent natural reflector. Portraits outside in winter are beautiful.
Wildlife and pets make for great winter photos. Many birds that do not migrate in winter have bright colors, perfect against a snowy backdrop.
Fast moving subjects, like wildlife and sports, will need a higher ISO setting to avoid being under-exposed.
The cold winter light is also fantastic for photos of buildings and interesting architecture, especially in black and white. A warm yellow light, shining from windows, creates a very inviting atmospheric photo.
Half or fully frozen waterfalls look wonderful (and dangerous), as can icy or wet street scenes.
You can take photos at night under the bright moonlight - the snow acts like a giant reflector.
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